Conservative leaders who now govern with a majority, and who previously didn't, don't visit Downing Street every day. But today marks an exception. Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, will meet with David Cameron – and address members of both Houses of Parliament. Harper led a minority government after Canada voted in 2006; led another after it voted in 2008 (winning more seats in the process), and led a government for the third time after the 2011 election – only, this time, it was a Conservative one.
This Anglosphere Conservative who clawed his way to majority is surely a model for Cameron to follow. So what lessons can be learned from him? I suggest three.
- Unify the right… The Progressive Conservatives lost all but two of their 156 Parliamentary seats in 1993. Harper won 166 in 2011, the year he gained a majority. The years in between saw the rise of the Reform Party; the merger of Reform and Progressive Conservative members into the Canadian Alliance, and the merger of the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives into today's Conservative Party. These were the milestones that marked the journey from disaster to triumph for the centre-right in Canada, and it's worth grasping that Harper was first elected as a Reform MP, not as a Progressive Conservative. In other words, he came from the end of the centre-right spectrum that might have been lampooned as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", or as "mad, swivel-eyed loons". But unlike most of those in UKIP, Harper wanted to unite the right, not divide it, and to govern as a practical man of power. If Cameron had been in Canada at the time when the right was divided, he would doubtless have been a progessive conservative. But he has a common with Harper a preoccupation with winning and government. And the lesson from Canada is that one needs a united right to get back into that game.
- …And occupy the centre… But Harper has done far, far more than simply win by re-forming a divided right into one political unit. Here is an example. In Britain, Cameron's Party wins roughly 16% of the ethnic minority vote. In Canada, Harper's wins 45%. This difference is partly accounted for by the ethnic mix and prosperity levels in Canada (the largest non-white and non-indigenous group is citizens of Chinese origin, followed by those of Indian origin). But this background is only part of the story. Conservative Party strategists point out that the mix was much the same at the turn of the century, but that the party's support among ethnic minorities was registering at only 18%. So what changed? One version of events is that the Liberal Party's drive for same-sex marriage opened doors for them among socially conservative minority groups who had previously kept them closed. And once those doors were opened, the Conservatives entered the room – and stayed. The party's focus on these voters is unwavering: for example, Conservative Cabinet Ministers were compelled to visit ethnic minority events at weekends, and report back.
Cameron is trying a version of the same – sending Cabinet Ministers who grasp the issues, such as Theresa May, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling, on a similar quest.
However, the Prime Minister's capacity is smaller. Canadian Ministers are well supported by SpAds. Alok Sharma, the Party Vice-Chairman responsible for outreach to ethnic minority groups, has a relatively puny resource at his. None the less, money isn't everything. One Canadian strategist told me that only connecting with people's deepest values has the party gradually built trust. Cameron's push for same-sex marriage will, at best, have done him little good with ethnic minority voters, who on the whole have a socially conservative profile, and much harm at worst.
And the third lesson Cameron can learn from Harper? I would say it is Dare to be Dull – or at least consistent. The Canadian Prime Minister is not an exciting politician. But my take is that he concentrates on getting the political basics right, assisted by a strong team – especially, perhaps, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Jason Kenney, the Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. (Kenney, a dedicated and relentless campaigner, is known as the "Smiling Buddha" for his outreach to Chinese Canadians.)
"You observe how these new Canadians live their lives. They are the
personification of Margaret Thatcher's aspirational class. They're all
about a massive work ethic," he was quoted as saying in the same article. The reference to Thatcher carries the taste and flavour of Harper's team – Movement Conservatives, certainly, who have campaigned against Kyoto; are strongly pro-Israel and have made the endangered position of Christians in the middle east a touchstone of their approach to foreign policy. (Harper takes a very different position on Syria to Cameron.)
But Movement Conservatives who look outward, not inward: who practice what Tim Montgomerie calls the Politics Of And. If Cameron is looking for advice on how to develop a conservatism for Bolton West, he could do worse than listen carefully to his visitor from Calgary South-West.